Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We are told that human nature is essentially perverse; that man is born a child of the devil, and wicked. Nothing can be more injudicious; for thou, my friend, who preachest to me that all the world is born perverse, warnest me that thou art born such also, and that I must mistrust thee as I would a fox or a crocodile. Oh, no! sayest thou; I am regenerated; I am neither a heretic nor an infidel; you may trust in me. But the rest of mankind, which are either heretic, or what thou callest infidel, will be an assemblage of monsters, and every time that thou speakest to a Lutheran or a Turk, thou mayest be sure that they will rob and murder thee, for they are children of the devil, they are born wicked; the one is not regenerated, the other is degenerated. It would be much more reasonable, much more noble, to say to men: “You are all born good; see how dreadful it is to corrupt the purity of your being. All mankind should be dealt with as are all men individually.” If a canon leads a scandalous life, we say to him: “Is it possible that you would dishonor the dignity of canon?” We remind a lawyer that he has the honor of being a counsellor to the king, and that he should set an example. We say to a soldier to encourage him: “Remember that thou art of the regiment of Champagne.” We should say to every individual: “Remember thy dignity as a man.”

And indeed, notwithstanding the contrary theory, we always return to that; for what else signifies the expression, so frequently used in all nations: “Be yourself again?” If we are born of the devil, if our origin was criminal, if our blood was formed of an infernal liquor, this expression: “Be yourself again,” would signify: “Consult, follow your diabolical nature; be an impostor, thief, and assassin; it is the law of your nature.”

Man is not born wicked; he becomes so, as he becomes sick. Physicians present themselves and say to him: “You are born sick.” It is very certain these doctors, whatever they may say or do, will not cure him, if the malady is inherent in his nature; besides, these reasoners are often very ailing themselves.

Assemble all the children of the universe; you will see in them only innocence, mildness, and fear; if they were born wicked, mischievous, and cruel, they would show some signs of it, as little serpents try to bite, and little tigers to tear. But nature not having given to men more offensive arms than to pigeons and rabbits, she cannot have given them an instinct leading them to destroy.

Man, therefore, is not born bad; why, therefore, are several infected with the plague of wickedness? It is, that those who are at their head being taken with the malady, communicate it to the rest of men: as a woman attacked with the distemper which Christopher Columbus brought from America, spreads the venom from one end of Europe to the other.

The first ambitious man corrupted the earth. You will tell me that this first monster has sowed the seed of pride, rapine, fraud, and cruelty, which is in all men. I confess, that in general most of our brethren can acquire these qualities; but has everybody the putrid fever, the stone and gravel, because everybody is exposed to it?

There are whole nations which are not wicked: the Philadelphians, the Banians, have never killed any one. The Chinese, the people of Tonquin, Lao, Siam, and even Japan, for more than a hundred years have not been acquainted with war. In ten years we scarcely see one of those great crimes which astonish human nature in the cities of Rome, Venice, Paris, London, and Amsterdam; towns in which cupidity, the mother of all crimes, is extreme.

If men were essentially wicked — if they were all born submissive to a being as mischievous as unfortunate, who, to revenge himself for his punishment, inspired them with all his passions — we should every morning see husbands assassinated by their wives, and fathers by their children; as at break of day we see fowls strangled by a weasel who comes to suck their blood.

If there be a thousand millions of men on the earth, that is much; that gives about five hundred millions of women, who sew, spin, nourish their little ones, keep their houses or cabins in order, and slander their neighbors a little. I see not what great harm these poor innocents do on earth. Of this number of inhabitants of the globe, there are at least two hundred millions of children, who certainly neither kill nor steal, and about as many old people and invalids, who have not the power of doing so. There will remain, at most, a hundred millions of robust young people capable of crime. Of this hundred millions, there are ninety continually occupied in forcing the earth, by prodigious labor, to furnish them with food and clothing; these have scarcely time. In the ten remaining millions will be comprised idle people and good company, who would enjoy themselves at their ease; men of talent occupied in their professions; magistrates, priests, visibly interested in leading a pure life, at least in appearance. Therefore, of truly wicked people, there will only remain a few politicians, either secular or regular, who will always trouble the world, and some thousand vagabonds who hire their services to these politicians. Now, there is never a million of these ferocious beasts employed at once, and in this number I reckon highwaymen. You have therefore on the earth, in the most stormy times, only one man in a thousand whom we can call wicked, and he is not always so.

There is, therefore infinitely less wickedness on the earth than we are told and believe there is. There is still too much, no doubt; we see misfortunes and horrible crimes; but the pleasure of complaining of and exaggerating them is so great, that at the least scratch we say that the earth flows with blood. Have you been deceived? — all men are perjured. A melancholy mind which has suffered injustice, sees the earth covered with damned people: as a young rake, supping with his lady, on coming from the opera, imagines that there are no unfortunates.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01